Sylvie Guillem, Robert Lepage, and Russell Maliphant

June 2, 2009

Sylvie Guillem, Robert Lepage, and Russell Maliphant
Théâtre Maisonneuve

Festival Transamériques
Montréal, Canada

June 2–6, 2009

Reviewed by MJ Thompson


Photo by Erick Labbe

Courtesy FTA.


is a challenging new dance-theatre piece by European superstar Sylvie Guillem, British choreographer and DV8 alum Russell Maliphant, and renowned theatre director Robert Lepage. Among the challenges? Containing the force of Guillem’s fierce ballet dancing, while ratcheting up Lepage’s own movement ability—he dances here for the first time, convincingly, at 50—and redistributing Maliphant’s precise skill at contemporary forms, especially martial arts, to all.


Through a series of dream-like dances, swordfights, and monologues, Éonnogata tells the story of the French diplomat and spy Chevalier d’Éon, whose ability to disguise himself as man or woman was so persuasive that his true gender was only discovered upon his death. The work blurs boundaries between ballet and modern, dance and theater, and Western forms and onnagata—a Japanese Kabuki tradition in which a male performer is trained to play female roles.

The piece tests Guillem’s acting skills; an early scene, for instance, has her fighting at the bargaining table. With Lepage and Maliphant on either side, she dominates the action as she leans over a table, drums her fingers, slams her fists, turns and kicks back her leg, then sweeps it across the table as if to start anew. The scene prefigures another, in which she writes furiously at a table, wielding her pen like a sword, all venom and beauty. Guillem’s capacity to absorb and own space, to stretch her shape across the void, to arc her body like a silver moon in the darkened theatre, demands great attention. But her technique feels out of place at times, cut off from depth of character.

More striking is Lepage’s inventive staging and use of props, wherein old tricks seem wondrously new again. When Maliphant’s head appears suddenly from behind Guillem’s kimono, the surprise is thrilling, as is the ensuing pas de deux involving a four-armed, two-headed body that makes d’Éon’s double identity literal. Especially beautiful, too, is a shadow dance that begins with Maliphant stepping behind a scrim, his form in silhouette. The shadow retreats, then reappears, only this time it’s Guillem’s form projected to giant proportion, standing tall with swords raised. In the end, the magic lies less in formal dance than in movement impossibilities made suddenly real.